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Feminista: A modern feminist perspective on ‘Vikings’

[Columns, letters or cartoons published are the work of the attributed author and do not necessarily represent the official views or opinions of “The Highland Echo.”]

I remember having an outline for what I wanted to write about this semester, but then comps happened and any organization that I once had has slid into the abyss that is becoming the last few months of senior year.

Recently, people have been saying a lot of interesting things in my classes about what feminism is (if it hasn’t been made clear by now, when I say interesting, I really mean dumb and just wrong) and I have been watching a lot of History Channel’s show “Vikings,” which is pretty much the greatest thing that’s happened in my history nerdtastic life in a while.

But, being me, I can’t just watch “Vikings” and hear people make random comments about gender essentialism and let it all slide into some thoughtless vacuum.

It seems like there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be a feminist. In reality, there are a lot of different forms of feminism out there. There is Indigenous feminism, Chicana feminism, Queer feminism, Trans* feminism, African-American feminism, Islamic feminism, Hindi feminism, etc. The list goes on.

But this is a relatively new feature of feminist thought. We no longer try to gender essentialize in the way that the second wave feminists did.

Because the reality of that feminism is that it largely leaves out anyone who is not a straight, white woman.

Take my favorite Viking, for instance. Lagartha Lothbrok is the wife of Ragnar Lothbrok, the famous Viking raider who, according to myth, was responsible for many of the early Viking raids.

Lagartha is basically the most badass woman on the show. Very rarely is she portrayed as subservient to her husband. She is his equal and is often praised in the community for her skill in raiding.

She is powerful and empowering. Lagartha raises her family, runs the family farm, goes on raids with her husband, saves her husband’s life and even kills rapists.

Since this is just a show on TV, there is probably little historical accuracy to this character, but she is an interesting one nevertheless.

However, I have to wonder how Lagartha’s power would function if she were alive today. Sure, during the Viking era, she seems like a good, feminist alternative to women who are ruled by their husbands or slave women who choose to be killed when their masters die because they have no identity separate from male leadership.

The truth is that Lagartha, and other women like her, already have a substantial amount of power due to racial and cultural dominance. It is not as strange to see a powerful white female in a historical context as it would be to see a woman of color in the same position.

Maybe Lagartha sort of reminds me that while she has the ability to be a strong role model for the women in her community, she also has the power to become a member of something like the American Nazi party.

It is certainly not true that all Scandinavian women are white supremacists or that they actively participate in the disempowerment of non-white women.

But I think that we too often want to say that mainstream feminism services all women when this is, in fact, not true.

Mainstream feminism largely grew out of the first and second waves of feminism, which featured a lot of gender essentialism and largely ignored issues concerning women whose sexism was tied to things other than biological gender.

When we say that feminism is successful when it empowers women like Lagartha, we are telling half-truths. White women do need feminism and can be feminists, but non-white women face even greater issues and experience being a woman very differently.

Feminism needs to encompass all women and allow for the unique realities facing all women to be validated, whether she is Viking warrior or minority cleaning lady.

Watch “Vikings” because Lagartha is awesome, but don’t forget how privileged she is in even her most challenging moments.

4 Comments

  1. viking society didnt have any problem with women warriors, the character Lagartha is not far from the truth. many female warrior viking burial sites have been found.

  2. The reason I like the History channel is because it tries to accurately combine history with entertainment. Yet its not entertaining to watch history blatantly put aside to soothe the egos of an actress and todays female viewers. The Vikings did rape and pillage. If you can’t deal with that then find and another acting job. Why even show it if its sensitive topic to viewers. GOT has no problem showing rape in a medieval fantasy world is which I personally disagree with. Black Sails also. Can’t show an accurate pirate town without the sex part. Shows like Star Trek had shows the fulfilled male fantasies. My point. When did it become ok to replace historical accuracy in with feminist spin? Smh

  3. Shieldmaidens did not engage in battle. That’s a false modern perspective. Shieldmaidens were shield-maidens. They provided shields, weapons, nourishment for the men in battle. Some women were buried with weapons and armour, but this was symbolic. The Nordic religion has a hall for righteous warriors, these warriors are the Einherjar, they’re all men, and they be served food and drink by the Valkyries. It should also be noted that during Ragnarok, the battle of the gods, the goddesses are not involved in battle, only the gods are, like Thor, Vali, Heimdall, etc.

  4. I find this an interesting discussion. I would like to point out, however, that the Viking conquests occurred between approximately 800AD and the 11th century. At that time there had not been as much systematic oppression of other races (by white people) simply due to the geographical confines and limited travel options available to the people of that time. Many different cultural groups in Scandinavia were “Vikings” including what is now an indigenous group, the Sami. Putting any historical figure into another context and saying “Look, now she’s privileged so her achievements aren’t that remarkable” isn’t really an accurate way to look at history. For her time, where women were pretty much oppressed left, right and centre, her actions display a high level of agency. Even if this is not an accurate portrayal, it is better than the GOT style “historical accuracy” (isn’t it a fantasy show?) which means women must be oppressed and subservient to male desire. Put her in North Africa during the Barbary Slave Trade and she’ll be in a racially oppressed group. Bit of a leap to say that in a modern context she’ll be an oppressor – if she was progressive then, her personality/values would probably be equally progressive if she was raised within the modern context.

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